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The Canine in Conversation
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photograph of a white dog amidst cream-colored sheep
figure 1  

 

work like a dog. To have to or be forced to work very hard.

Sometimes this simile is employed to simply describe hard work, however it is my belief this is a misusage. In order to understand the nuances of this phrase, it must be considered in light of common beliefs about dogs as they are expressed in two other metaphoric terms. First, “lazy as a dog” is a reminder that dogs are notoriously lazy creatures, though this is not necessarily a reputation that dogs deserve. This reference to dogs as less than diligent workers is also expressed in the phrase “dogging it,” which describes deliberately giving less than full effort. The inference is that to get a dog to work hard, coercion is needed, specifically, force.

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painting of a dog sled spacer
figure 2
Even those who are ready to describe dogs as “con artists” and parasites would not suggest that dogs are especially responsive to applications of force to get them to do anything.reference 1 And perhaps it is the kind of work dogs will do when treated poorly that has earned them their reputation as lazy, and the sense that working like a dog is coerced. Unlike the humans who are compared to dogs, domesticated canines are not motivated by material wealth, but by being provided with a specific social role and receiving social rewards for fulfilling it. Dogs will indeed do what humans consider work, and do it with apparent pleasure and even a kind of satisfaction. Indeed, the effort involved may be significant and done with little or no complaint, if the activities have been framed as a part of fulfilling the dog's social obligations and if the human has rewarded the dog with appropriate approval and social status. While material rewards, such as “treats,” may be employed in signifying the approval, social rewards are more significant for a dog than physical sustenance.

1. Budiansky, Stephen. 2001. The Truth About Dogs. New York: Penguin Books.

 

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About the illustrations: Figure 1 is an actual working dog engaged in sheep herding. A herding dog, once trained, requires little supervision, much less coercion. Even sled dogs (Figure 2), who are whipped to spur them on to higher speeds, do their job out of loyalty to the pack and social rewards, and not simply because they are threatened with force. Figure 2 is from a painting by Stanley Rogers for The Boys' Budget. Both figures © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.
see also: lead dog
cf: lazy as a dog; dogging it
Last updated: March 31, 2008
by Alec MacLeod 2001-2008  Dogmatic Technologies Oakland Creative Commons unless otherwise expressly stated, all original material of whatever nature created by Alec MacLeod and included in The Canine in Conversation and any related pages, is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Please read the Terms of Use Agreement by Alec MacLeod Dogmatic Technologies